Saturday, 17 April 2010

John Traxler, mobile learning and institutional models

I found a really nice podcast interview with John Traxler, who is very much a pioneer in the area of mobile learning and research.

The bit that interested me was when he talked about how the model that institutions (universities etc) deploy for elearning is just not suitable for mobile learning and students will not respond well to being issued a standardised mobile device when they probably already have one that they like.

Certainly most of the research studies I've read into the subject involve institutions buying a large quantity of identical mobile devices (PDAs or iphones, ipod touches etc) and then issuing them to the students. As Traxler said, this is very much based on the model they use for desktop computers where they buy a load of them and put them in a computer lab for student use.

This is problematic because it's likely that student already have a device they use and now they either have to abandon their first device or carry around two, which will turn out to be impractical for a lot of people. I know that I would get annoyed having to always remember to take both devices with me and  the convenience of mobile learning would suddenly become an encumbrance.

Also - again something Traxler points out - users tend to be quite possessive of their mobile devices and have preferences that may not match up with the universities. They might not like certain form factors (e.g. touchscreens or flip phones) or even certain brands (go to some mobile phone forums if you want to see some wonderful examples of fanboy pettiness) and would prefer to either have a choice over which phone they can have or just to keep the one they've already got.

I think institutions are going to have to be a lot more flexible when it comes to mobile learning than elearning. They are going to have to be ready to give up some control so that students feel comfortable with it. For example, they will not be able to control exactly what they do with them as they can do at the moment with desktop computers. And they are going to have to offer different avenues for having content delivered to them: eg. not just via mobile internet, but SMS or bluetooth transfer to account for the wide range of mobile devices that students have.


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  2. Hi David,

    I fully agree with your central premise here - we must allow users/learners to decide which device they want/like and adapt our tools/methods/processes to deliver content to them in the best formats possible. I suppose it is not much different than we all wear different clothes, buy different TVs and drive different vehicles according to our personal preferences and budgets.

    After several years of working to promote the use (and purchase) of specialized devices to enable mobile learning in enterprise organizations -- we've separately (and unsuccessfully!) campaigned for companies to adopt everything from proprietary mobile hardware (e.g., a Norwegian device called the "FreePad"), Nokia N770/800/810 Internet tablet devices and even UMPCs from OQO and Vulcan Venture. Throughout it all, we never got anyone to buy anything new so we changed course 180 degrees and focused on finding ways to deliver consistent content to every device starting first with voice/IVR and message-based content then devising ways to package content for on-device delivery via the mobile web and then ultimately ways to author content in an once/deploy many fashion to all the leading smartphones using advanced methods for transcoding and on-the-fly re-factoring. The path taken has never been easy but always proved interesting indeed. And its certain to remain that way into the foreseeable future.

  3. I appreciate this article addressing the issue of device specific education for mobile and it's failure points. We created Urban English, audio English language lessons delivered via sms with embedded audio link in order to reach 95% of handsets. We like to say we're device agnostic, particularly since we are serving markets in developing countries where even should the individual own a smart phone, the coverage for data rich programs is spotty of unavailable. For example, Thailand talks about having 3G. The reality is that the only 3G in Thailand is inside the mega mall in the center of Bangkok. As I was saying, we agree entirely with the need to develop educational material that reaches the student on the device already in his pocket. Thanks for your discussion. Catherine